State of emergency: What life is really like in Bangkok

State of emergency: What life is really like in Bangkok

A three-week long protest and now a state of emergency. We explore what it's actually like at street level for tourists and locals
Red shirt protests
Thousands of red shirted protesters have shut down Bangkok's busy Rajaprasong intersection. This area is normally clogged with cars, not people.

Bangkok is under a government imposed state of emergency after red-clad protesters stormed the parliament compound on Wednesday, forcing some lawmakers to flee via helicopter. It was the latest -- and most provocative -- move by the anti-government demonstrators, who are trying to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and force elections.

The state of emergency is designed to give the army enforced powers to disperse the protesters. But it’s unclear when that will happen. (For more on the state of emergency, watch CNN's recent report.)

The protests have been going on in Bangkok for more than three weeks, and many may be considering leaving the country or cancelling their trips here. Here's a view of the reality on the ground: Without making light of the situation, so far there has been nothing to suggest the protests are putting anyone in any danger. But remember that despite having been peaceful until now, these things can always turn chaotic.  Often without any warning.

1. In much of Bangkok, the protests haven’t changed daily life

The portions of the Thai capital that the protesters have seized are small given the size of this enormous city.

"We're all in favor of democracy. They've been lovely to us. We can live without the malls."—  Mick Greenwood, tourist

The original protest site, close to the Chao Phraya river along Rajadamnoen Road, isn’t a place tourists are likely to visit, although it’s within walking distance of the Khao San Road backpacker district.
 
The airport is still open, and protesters haven’t said they’ll occupy it, as their yellow-shirted political opponents did in November 2008. Taxis are still readily available, and all but a few major roads are still accessible.
 
However…

2. The second major rallying point, the Rajaprasong intersection, is smack dab in the middle of Bangkok’s hotel and shopping district

This is where you’ll find five-star establishments like the Four Seasons, the InterContinental, and the Grand Hyatt Erawan. And in a city known for its shopping, the area’s CentralWorld, Central Chidlom, and Siam Paragon malls are among Bangkok’s most upscale and popular. The hotels are still open, though some have erected small barriers to keep red shirts out. 
 
While this area is shut down for blocks in either direction, the BTS Skytrain stations that run above it -- Chidlom and Siam -- are still functioning. (Just be prepared to share the car with wide-eyed tourists, enthusiastic red shirt demonstrators, and perhaps a few annoyed local people.)
 
The protest area here should be approached with caution, as the situation is fluid, but you’ll find an interesting clash of cultures if you choose to check it out. The protesters, many of whom are working class people from the north and northeast of the country, have set up a stage and tents, and have been blaring pop and folks songs. Police clad in riot gear -- many of whom are sympathetic to the red shirts -- look on passively.
 
Vendors are selling dried squid in front of the famous Erawan shrine; women are selling peanuts in plastic bags from stalls set up in front of Louis Vuitton billboards; and other vendors are selling red shirts bearing political slogans like “Truth Today” in front of Coach shops.

3. Remember: The protesters mean business.

Again, while the demonstrations have generally been good-natured, the protesters are dug in.

“Please tell your country Thailand's government is a tyrant," a 60-year-old woman named Pornmanet told me. She had come to Bangkok from Phitsanulok, in the country’s north, to protest.  “We are poor people. We want the government to change its thinking,” she said.
 
The tourists I encountered at Rajaprasong Wednesday didn’t seem to be too perturbed.

“They’re fighting for the cause -- democracy,” said Mick Greenwood, of Leeds, England. “We’re all in favor of democracy. They’ve been lovely to us,” he said. “We can live without malls.”
 
Casilda Oriarte, a 40-year-old tourist from Spain, said: “I feel for the people. It’s amazing to see the protest. It keeps going and going. It’s hard to stop something like this.”
 
Dominic Cunningham-Reid, a 40-year-old Kenyan, said, “It has the mood of a family rock concert, with two year olds and grandparents." He added that he would not hesitate to return to Thailand.

4. Thai tourism may take a serious hit -- and the grind is fraying some nerves

The protests have troubling economic implications. The retailers in Rajaprasong are losing millions of dollars every day. And while the Skytrain is still running and taxis are still plentiful, life hasn’t been easy for some of the city’s expats and Thais who live and work in the area.
 
Cameron Wolf, an American who lives in Bangkok and works near Rajaprasong, told me that things are “relatively calm,” but still not “business as usual.” International meetings that had been scheduled months ago, he said, have been canceled due to the unrest.
 
Over one of the city’s elevated walkways, demonstrators hung a sign that says “Welcome to Thailand. We Just Want Democracy.” The Tourism Authority of Thailand, no doubt, hopes that tourists are understanding.
 
Tourism accounts for seven percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product. And Prakit Chinamourphong, who heads the Thai Hotels Association, told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that since the protests started over three weeks ago, the country’s tourism industry has lost some US$309 million.
 
Craig Harrington, 34, an American who works for a well known Thai travel agency, told me that some hotels here have already received cancellations. Some tourists considering coming to Thailand -- especially Spaniards-- are put off by the demonstrations. “They can just go to Latin, Central, or South America,” he said, “where things are just as cheap, there are no language barriers -- and no protests.”
 
Thailand high season for tourism -- winter in the northern hemisphere -- has passed, but the Thai new year, Songkran, begins next week. It’s Thailand’s most important domestic holiday period, known for its carnival-like water splashing activities. The Thai tourism authorities have planned special events, but one wonders how many holidaymakers will be here to take part?

Most Bangkok residents leave the Thai capital during this time. Indeed, this Songkran, those who don’t support the red shirts will be all the more eager to get out of town.

Newley Purnell is a freelance journalist in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the New York Times, on AFP, ABC News Radio, ABCNews.com, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, and more. He has been blogging at http://newley.com since 2002.

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